Finding your organization’s future in its past

Clients are surprised by the advice, but before launching into a planning process I encourage telling stories about the organization’s past. Eager to grasp the future, nonprofit heads and their governance helpmates see little point in re-visiting what’s already been. In most instances, there’s not much interest in repeating the past, so why spend time on it?

The short answer is this. You have much to learn from dusting off the organization’s history — the good, the bad, and the just plain ugly of it. Events deemed failures have a lot to teach and yesterday’s successes aren’t necessarily passé. In other words, there’s value galore in looking back before moving forward.

figure_rear_view_mirror_11283-1As an article in the December 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review puts it, “A sophisticated understanding of the past is one of the most powerful tools we have for shaping the future. . . The past is a kind of screen upon which we project our vision of the future.” It’s no surprise that governance gurus urge every board to include a storyteller – a keeper of the organizational myths.

I marked up the HBR article on my first read, muttering “amen” with each swish of the highlighter. Upon pulling the piece out again in preparation for a consulting contract, I remembered I had meant to write about it here at Generous Matters. The article is well worth the price of a reprint or the effort of a trip to the library. In the meantime, here’s some of what I will share with the planning team in my future.


History isn’t just a nostalgic stroll down memory lane. Nor is it a slavish attachment to the way things were. According to authors John Seaman and George Smith, history is a powerful leadership tool, helping to:

  • remind of us who we are, why we’re together, and the grand prize toward which we are striving. “A shared history is a large part of what binds individuals into a community and imbues a group with a distinctive identity.”
  • transform cultures that are no longer healthy. “Decision making improves when strategists take the time to understand why actions were taken and how assumptions become deeply rooted.”
  • put tough times into context. Without the stories of the organization’s long-time obedience in the face of adversity, we convince ourselves that nobody’s seen the troubles we’re now seeing.
  • heal rifts. Factions within organizations outlive the memories of what divided folks in the first place.  After tracing old hurts to the root-causes, present day leaders can break free from hurts of the past.

So let’s hear it for the old coot at the end of the table – that longtime board member who knows all the secrets, has lived the wars, and still has the passion to champion the organization, its mission, and its possibilities. He or she may not be a likely pick to chair the strategic planning committee, but it’s short-sighted to race into the future without pausing first to hear what the boardroom sage has to say about the past.

As you’ve likely heard said, “How can you know you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been?” Odds are good that the contours of your organization’s future are visible in its past.

Reference: “Your Company’s History as a Leadership Tool” by John T. Seaman, Jr. and George David Smith in Harvard Business Review, December 2012.

For more on the board and planning, see:

The role of edgy questions in planning

The board’s role in strategic change




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